Ever wanted to hear what the band Kansas sounded like before they were signed to Don Kirshner's record label? Well, the good folks at Cuneiform have worked with guitarist/keyboardist/songwriter and founding member Kerry Livgren to get these early demos and live recordings released to the public. This collection is a fascinating listen to the embryonic stages of the band, that only included Livgren and six other musicians who left before the classic line-up was formed.
The first immediate shock is to hear sax and flutes in place of violin on these tracks. The use of these instruments adds a sort of early Chicago or Mogul Thrash feel, and combined with Livgren's complex song structures, fantasy tinged lyrics, hard rock guitar, and lethal Hammond organ, make for a different sound than we are used to from Kansas. "Nactolos 21" is an almost twelve minute prog fest with stabbing flute, funky sax and piano, plus great vocals from Lynn Meredith. He has a much different style than his successor Steve Walsh, but fits right in with many of the underground prog singers from that era. The heavy, complexity of "Hegemonium" is a welcome treat, and would have made a nice addition to one of the later Kansas recordings with perhaps some wild violin from Robbie Steinhardt in place of the monstrous sax. Livgren's guitar work is quite evil sounding here, and reminds me of his work on "Lightnings Hand."
Two songs from this collection were later re-recorded on official Kansas albums, "Belexes" and "Incomudro", and it's interesting to hear the different arrangements. Being used to hearing Walsh's vocals and symphonic synths and violin, it took a bit of getting used to Meredith's vocals and sax and flute in place of them. Still, it is great to hear how these songs had evolved, and considering how ahead of their time these tunes really were (Livgren makes a comment in the booklet that the band was always said to have copied other bands of that era, when in reality they were writing this kind of complex, adventurous prog rock in 1971, before some of these other bands were in existence) it's a true testament to the writing skills of Livgren. Sure, the rich melodies had yet to surface, and much of this material sounds slightly dated, but there is a sense of sheer experimentism on these songs that cannot be denied. Take "Totus Nemesis" for example, a fourteen minute journey that has more to do with Soft Machine and the Mothers of Invention than Yes, Gentle Giant or Genesis. Squonking saxes, violent drums, booming, feedback laden bass, and pure noise guitar from Livgren, makes for abstract jazz fusion much like the music from Soft Machine III. The two live tracks, "Cyclopy" and "Skont" are in the same style, kind of complex jazzy jams, with some wild soloing and a harder edge. Of course, there is some great pre-classic material here as well, such as the majestic "Reunion in the Mountains of Sarne" or the mellow but effective "Greek Structure Sunbeam", both of which are simlar in style to the band that this unit eventually became. The former contains some great melodies and wonderful piano work. It would have been interesting to hear these tunes re-recorded later on as well .
This CD is a must for every Kansas fan, but also for the listener who has an appreciation for early 70's progressive rock and fusion. Credit must be given to Kerry Livgren and Cuneiform, as I don't think anyone ever thought that these recordings would ever see the light of day. While very different from the band that would record Song for America or Leftoverture, this is still an important document from a musical treasure of the progressive rock world.